Weekly Wildcat Watch

Basketball dominates this week's Weekly Wildcat Watch. Aside from Purple Reign's round-up of recent recruiting news, there are articles discussing freshman Drew Crawford's hops, Tom Izzo's "challenge" to Bill Carmody and the team's goal of going dancing. Oh, and there's some football too.

Apologies for not having a Weekly Wildcat Watch last week. But the hoops recruiting updates were deemed more pressing.

It was more of an update than news news, but this article discusses what Northwestern is up to on the basketball recruiting front. With interest fizzling out* between the Wildcats and 6-6 Florida wing Will Sheehey – who NU was previously interested in before rescinding its offer – Purple Reign took a closer look at what positions and players the Cats are now after.

* A lot changed with Sheehey's recruitment from this summer to late October. Part of the reason is that Sheehey was late to the AAU scene and thus didn't have many offers entering the summer. Northwestern was there with an early offer, and Sheehey seemed interested in NU back in July, when this article was written. (If you want the cliff notes, he said: "As of right now, I'd like to take a visit (to NU). My high school coach and I talked and we think it's a good idea.")

But more schools came with offers, including Indiana, which Sheehey plans to visit soon. Indeed, the list of suitors for Sheehey grew considerably since NU first offered.

Meanwhile, Northwestern became less interested in Sheehey, and eventually pulled the scholarship offer to pursue other positions. Which bring us to…

A source with knowledge of the programs targets told Purple Reign that point guard and athleticism at the wing were now the eminent recruiting foci. The source named point guards Pe'Shon Howard (Virginia) and Jordin Mayes (California) as two primary targets.

It will be interesting to see what happens with the wing (or 3) position. There was some recruiting interest in Chicago native Dwayne Evans, but no offer. And anyway, Evans has since committed to St. Louis. Sheehey fits the bill for an athletic wing, but again, NU is going a different route (as is Sheehey).

Purple Reign's basketball sources are more forthcoming that the football ones, and you'll be apprised as soon as there is anything to apprise about.

Veering from the recruiting trail for a moment, this article takes a look at how important three-pointers were/are to Northwestern. Purple Reign culled last season's stats and box scores, and there were some pretty stark three-point numbers. For instance:

NU beat five tournament teams last season: Florida State, Minnesota, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State. In those five games, NU shot at least 50 percent from downtown in three of them (and a staggering 61.5 percent – 8-of-13 – against Wisconsin). All told, in NU's five tourney-team wins, the Cats shot 46-of-104, or 46.2 percent….

Only twice all season did NU hit their season average of 38.6 percent from downtown and still lose. And only four times all season did NU nail at least eight threes (8.2 to be exact) and still lose. In 2008-09 – and likely again in 2009-10 – these are truly magic numbers when it comes to predicting NU's success.

And it works both ways. Save some early-season blowouts of some sub-par competition – wins that came by 42, 18, 16 and 27 points and allowed for some bench players to play significant minutes – the Wildcats shot well from downtown in all of their wins.

And they had to. Because the Cats can't own other areas, like rebounds, like they do the three-point shot. To be fair, NU does really well in some other stats too. For example, the Cats were No. 10 in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio last season and No. 13 in turnover margin.

Thing is, though, that the turnover stats didn't betray them in losses like the threes did. In the FSU win, NU won the turnover battle 22-13. Pretty good, yeah? But in its loss to Purdue, NU won the turnover battle 22-8. Later in the season, in its victory over Purdue, NU again won the turnover battle, but only by a 9-7 margin. In the OSU win, the Cats had 10 turnovers to OSU's 15. In the Michigan loss, NU had 11 giveaways to Michigan's 17. So that stat lies – at least more than the three-pointers.

Anyway, if you're a Wildcat hoops fan it's pretty interesting stuff. Not that Northwestern Shoots Three-Pointers!!! is groundbreaking news. But if you read the article and check out the charts, there is more than a circumstantial relationship between win, losses and threes.

Another recent non-recruiting hoops article was this one, which looked at the way that people are talking about the upcoming Northwestern season. Some of the preseason chatter heading into last season was borderline scathing. Like this from Athlon Sports:

For the last eight years, Bill Carmody has tried to craft a respectable product from substandard talent. He employed a junky 1-3-1 zone defense to offset a lack of size. He made guards into forwards and forwards into centers. He did anything to close the gap between Northwestern and its opponents, a gap created in part by his poor recruiting.

As Carmody enters his ninth year, he's under increased pressure to produce results.

And this from Maddux Sports:

For head coach Bill Carmody, it was another year of losses, failed attempts and substandard talent. Carmody starts his ninth season with Northwestern and desperately needs to show improvement….

Sure, coming off an 8-22 season, it makes sense that people weren't giddy about NU heading into the 2008-09. But what's interesting is the shift in pundit banter when looking at this year's cycle of preseason hoops news. Some of the rhetoric would have seemed laughable last season. People are talking Tourney – like, the Big Tourney – and it's quite the refresher after last season's almost condescending preseason talk.

Another newsworthy tidbit from Purple Reign came via this article – penned by Scout's Allen Wallace – which discusses Ibraheim Campbell's visit to Evanston. Campbell is a running back, and, well, NU could probably use some help* in the backfield.

*Saturday's game was another rather futile effort on the ground. For the third time in four games, NU's quarterback was the leading rusher. This time is was Dan Persa, the other two Mike Kafka. What's especially noticeable (and discouraging) about Saturday's rushing stats is that Northwestern's top TWO leading rushers were the quarterbacks, each of whom had 42 yards, and each of who played about half of a game.

And you can't chalk that up simply to parity or a "committee" approach in the backfield, because, alas, you can add up EVERY OTHER running backs' rushing yards and the sum doesn't equal Kafka's or Persa's rushing output.

It's not all to be pinned on the backs – there is a line in front of them as well – but this season-long trend is tough to stomach. The rushing malaise hasn't passed – not by a long shot. On the season, the Cats rank 94th in the nation is rushing yards per game with 121.9.

That was a long way of saying that having a ballyhooed running back coming for an official visit is a good thing.


OK, let's proceed to some non-Purple Reign hoops news – which is steadily picking up.

Here is a basketball story about 6-foot-5 Drew Crawford, who averaged 24 points, nine rebounds and four assists as a senior last year at Naperville Central. The article beats home two points: Expectations are different this season, and Crawford can apparently jump through the roof.

"He is so versatile and athletic," point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson said. "He finishes in so many ways, jumping off the wrong leg, making awkward layups. Coach (Bill) Carmody loves it."

Said Carmody: "Some guys can jump and don't accomplish that much. With him, it's productive jumping; it's in the course of the game. He gets rebounds with two hands. He tips the ball in. He has good timing.

"It's not like he's the best jumper in this conference. But now we have one of those guys."…

"It's certainly better than my freshman and sophomore years," (Kevin) Coble said, "when people said, 'What are you going to win, two Big Ten games?' "

And then there were a couple articles – here and here – about something that Michigan State's Tom Izzo said at Big Ten Media Day.

"I told Bill (Carmody) that this is his year to get there," Izzo said. "I told him I was putting the pressure on him right here and now."

Carmody, whose team lost only Big Ten 3-point marksman Craig Moore from last season's starting five, doesn't mind that one bit.

"I don't think of it as pressure. Getting to the NCAA tourney is something we should aspire to, every team should," Carmody said. "We do feel like we are going to have one of our better teams, but top to bottom everyone else is going to be better, too."

And from the Herald:

It's not news when Michigan State gets the nod as the Big Ten's preseason favorite.

Not only have the Spartans participated in five of the last 11 Final Fours, the national preseason polls released on Thursday predict they'll make it six out of 12 in April.

It IS news, though, when Michigan State's coach declares this to be the season Northwestern qualifies for the NCAA Tournament.

Staying with basketball, this article from the Sun Times is devoted to the strange fact that, like Izzo said, NU is expected to get to the NCAA tourney this season:

"Outsiders are always talking about the NCAA," junior guard Michael "Juice" Thompson said. "It is one of our goals to get there. We have to pay attention to details."

(From Coble:) "Not having Craig will be tough, but [getting to] the NCAA is not a pipe dream. I knew it wouldn't happen before this season. The key is getting off to a good start."

That there is an uptick in basketball news is refreshing on a couple levels. First off, it's nice for the reasons that those articles (and this one) keep mentioning: There haven't been expectations like this in a long time at NU, and probably never in the Carmody Era. That's awesome anytime, but two years removed from the 2007-08 debacle, preseason tourney talk is just awesome. Like suffering through a brutal winter and then savoring those first few warm spring days. (Whether not the weather has truly turned remains to be seen…it looks good though.)

It's also nice because football has been a bit of a letdown. And Saturday continued the trend. Injury to the starting quarterback; still can't run the ball; heading off to play undefeated Iowa this week. So the diversion is welcome.

Speaking of football, this is a recap of Saturday's game against Penn State.*

*It was a weird game, wasn't it? Northwestern ran 80 plays but still only scored 13 points. The Cats were winning at halftime and were tied going into the fourth. Save that little three-TDs-in-four-minutes outburst, the game was pretty even. Yet it wasn't even at all: PSU won by three touchdowns.

From that game story:

"It's kind of tough to get real excited in an atmosphere like this," admitted safety Drew Astorino afterward. "But we just had to keep pushing ourselves. You've got to play every game. Every team in the Big Ten is legitimate."

The reason that that quote stood out is because a week or two ago Purple Reign published this article which talked about the far-from-hostile confines of Ryan Field this season. The announced attendance Saturday was 30,546, which, even if totally accurate, is nowhere near a sellout, even though this is the best team that will venture into Evanston all season.

Other than that, what stood out about this week's recaps was the way that opposing writers glowed about Kafka and how much his injury – apparently to his hamstring – changed the complexion of the game. It happened in this column.

Joe Paterno…knew his team picked up its intensity after the break, but he also knew Kafka, a 6-3, 220-pound senior, had his highly rated defense confused out there.

"The adjustment we made is their quarterback got hurt,'' Paterno said.

Kafka had riddled PSU's defense with his right arm and his feet before he injured his leg, possibly his hamstring, on a rush midway through the second quarter.

NU was moving with its short passing game, its receivers cutting inside and outside of PSU's zones and Kafka finding them in stride for 7, 8 and 9-yard gains.

But Persa is more of a running threat. He couldn't make the throws Kafka did. Without the constant threat of a quality pass, the run lanes disappeared in the second half. NU was shut out and managed just 125 yards.

This article* from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette mentions the injury as well, quoting linebacker Sean Lee saying, "(Kafka) got us in some situations in the first half where we were back on our heels and huffing and puffing."

And the AP recap quoted Joe Paterno saying: "You got to understand that a kid like that quarterback [Kafka] is out of there, it's a big loss. Kafka's a heck of a football player."

* Another interesting quote came from that first article:

"They were dinking and dunking us, hitting crossing routes on us, and it was tough grasping the speed of the game,'' PSU defensive end Jerome Hayes said.

Interesting because it's almost to a T what Michigan State linebacker Eric Gordon said after the NU-MSU game a few weeks ago:

"The dinking and dunking, it gets kind of old, but it's a great thing for an offense to do. It wears down a defense. We just hung in there and kept on playing."

This article delves into the seriousness – or lack thereof – of Kafka's injury. Fitz was predictably tight-lipped about it afterward, but if you want some speculation, there it is. And while we're talking about injuries, this article discusses how banged up NU's defensive backs are.

The next two articles are ones that got lost in the shuffle with there not being a WWW last week. This one is about Corey Wootton's nagging ankle injury. Between recovering from the knee injury and this ankle problem, Wootton's productivity has been limited big-time this season. He has only 10 tackles – and two since the Purdue game – and simply hasn't been the dominant player we saw last season. Judging from the article, though, he's keeping his head about him.

And here is an article about Zeke Markshausen and his relationship with his father. Even though two games have passed since this was written, nothing has really changed in the article: He was the leading receiver then as now. He has 67 catches on the season; the second-best total is Andrew Brewer's 37. (This story from PR also discusses NU's improbable No. 1 receiver.)

Finally, a bit of bad new. Steve Reid, a Leo High graduate who captained the 1936 Wildcat team, recently died at age 94. In 1961, Reid was named to Sports Illustrated's "Silver Anniversary" All-America team.

To reach Purple Reign, write to northwestern.scout@gmail.com.

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